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Why Pop Art Is Jewish

A Roy Lichtenstein show at the Art Institute of Chicago reveals the movement’s affront to WASPy decorum

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Roy Lichtenstein, American (1923-1997). Haystacks, 1969. Oil and Magna on canvas. 40.6 x 61 cm (16 x 24 in). (© Estate of Roy Lichtenstein. The Ruben Family.)

Nothing, of course, could have been further from his intention; he wasn’t overtly political, he was an ironist. The passing years made this clear, and the Chicago show reifies this perspective. “It’s art about art about art,” Marc Sheps, the director of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, commented when the mural there, a diptych on permanent display that is half abstract and half figurative, was unveiled. He was right, not only about the mural but all Lichtenstein’s work. Lichtenstein was interested in the way in which ways of seeing had been altered by what Barbara Rose, in the year before the Tate show, called “discredited mass culture sources … advertisements, billboards, comic books, movies and TV.” He was far less interested in his subject matter than his audience, had no message to get across except to reflect the industrialized, super-material aspect of American life, in which, through his acknowledged “vulgar” renderings of work by the great masters (he did to Picasso what Picasso had done to Velázquez) he also participated.

In all likelihood there has rarely been an artist for whom the discrepancy between his own concerns and those of his audience has been greater. Lichtenstein, who worked for many years as an abstractionist and continued to think of his subject matter as abstract even after he had turned to the comic strip for inspiration, became, despite himself, the poster boy for, well, posters. Warhol, that enigma wrapped inside a pastry, appeared to share the Pop Art joke with his audience: America was spiritually vacant and ludicrous, when he silk-screened 200 one-dollar bills we all got it. Five years ago that first 1962 silk-screen painting went for $43.8 million on the auction block at Sotheby’s, which is as the world turns. Warhol enacted his art, reproduced himself, and showed up everywhere. Reviewing Warhol’s diaries in the New York Times Book Review in June 1989, Martin Amis listed some representative events: “the opening of an escalator at Bergdorf Goodman … an ice cream-shop unveiling in Palm Beach, a Barbie Doll bash, someplace to judge a Madonna-lookalike playoff and someplace else to judge a naked-breast contest.” Amis adds, “It strains you to imagine the kind of invitation Andy might turn down. To the refurbishment of a fire exit at the Chase Manhattan Bank? To early heats of a wet-leotard competition in Long Island City?” By contrast, Lichtenstein was reclusive and rarely broke his inexorable work routine—in the studio at 10 a.m., lunch at 1 p.m., return to studio until 6. In a 1987 interview in the New York Times, when Deborah Solomon asked him what holidays he celebrated, he had a hard time coming up with an answer until he remembered he had been at a friend’s for Thanksgiving. No wonder he painted an anxious blonde with a white-gloved hand held to her cheek whose thought-bubble reads, “M-Maybe he became ill and couldn’t leave the studio!” You can see her in Chicago.

Norman Mailer once affirmed that his reading of the Talmud influenced everything he had written. You’d have to do some digging, of course, to see how. The chronology provided on the website of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation does not even bother to mention that Lichtenstein’s Brooklyn-born real-estate broker father Milton and his mother Beatrice, born in New Orleans, were both Jewish, although the catalog for the Chicago show does parse his German-Jewish ancestry. Lichtenstein visited Israel for the first time in 1987 when he was 64 and discussed the possibility of the large mural that presently graces the lobby of the Tel Aviv Museum. Lichtenstein’s gift—he said at the time that he “wanted to give something to Israel”—was not without controversy, some vocal groups felt the wall should have been made available to a local artist. Lichtenstein, who the previous year had signed a telegram urging the Israeli government to negotiate with the Palestinians, remained above the fray and took a different tack, observing that the mural was meant for “anyone in the area.”

In his extraordinary and brilliant meditation on Freud’s relationship to his own Jewishness in Freud’s Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi speculates that Freud’s attachment to and knowledge of things Jewish was far deeper than the great man liked to let on. Yerushalmi offers two wonderfully dubious yet curiously persuasive arguments in support of his thesis: First, Freud had a dog named Jofi, which had to be a Germanization of Yoffi; and second, Freud’s father gave him a Bible with a lengthy Hebrew inscription, and who would do that if the recipient couldn’t understand the language? In Roy Lichtenstein in His Studio, a portfolio of photographs by Laurie Lambrecht of the artist at work, only one image appears twice. It shows Lichtenstein seated in a chair at work on a canvas. He looks quite at home in this particular spot. Above the canvas one can clearly see the bottom of a poster for one of his shows: The words “art of the sixties” appear in both Hebrew and English. Perhaps Pop Art is Jewish after all?

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artsandsciences says:

Of course, Abstract Expressionism (against which Pop Art was rebelling) was also Jewish, very, very Jewish. Apart from DeKooning, almost all the major practitioners were Jews as were the critics. The pop artists, on the whole, were not: Warhol, Rosenquist et al. So there is something really tendentious about this argument. The New York art scene had lots and lots of Jews. In all camps.

Christopher Reiger says:

ArtsAndSciences, I don’t believe Mr. Wilson is making a serious claim that Pop Art is Jewish.  The essay is more of an innocent, well-intentioned reaching-claiming, which most of us do now and again (e.g., Christopher Columbus is back in the news as a crypto-Jew).  In the case of Lichtenstein, of course, he IS Jewish, but his creative output isn’t generally considered such.  Mr. Wilson does a good job of pointing out the “Jewishy” aspects of Lichtenstein’s life and legacy….but, for my part, I’m glad that Lichtenstein isn’t generally thought of as a “Jewish artist.”

Throughout my late teens and twenties, Lichtenstein’s comic-inspired artworks inflamed my sense of righteous indignation.  I was bothered less by the famous artist’s questionable sampling of newspaper and comic book artists’ work than I was by his disregard for the skill of those he copied. In a 1963 interview, Lichtenstein distinguished between his source material and his paintings, stating:

“What I do is form, whereas the comic strip is not formed in the sense I’m using the word; the comics have shapes but there has been no effort to make them intensely unified…The difference is often not great, but it is crucial.”

Uh-huh, Roy.  It’s not simply the well-heeled, intellectually insecure audience that make the “crucial” difference?

I don’t get especially worked up about Lichtenstein’s appropriation anymore, but I still believe the man was something of a charlatan. Had he acknowledged his indebtedness to the artists he imitated, his comic panel paintings could be interpreted as a cynical project highlighting the role of class and money in the appraisal of culture (i.e., it’s not fine art if it’s in a newspaper, but if it’s in a gallery and the “right” person will pay a lot of money for it, it is). That still wouldn’t make it particularly thoughtful artwork, but it’s certainly a Pop Art approach, and Lichtenstein could have been remembered as a winking champion of the comic artists that nourished him.

Alas, he choose another way of framing himself, one that included a lot less humility and no sense of humor.

If there’s one thing to celebrate about him (from where I stand), it’s that I almost always prefer the artists who work hard to the artists who play hard.

gwhepner says:

WITHOUT A LEOPARD LIECHTENSTEIN

Chagall loved painting Jewish subjects, Judaizing Jesus
Liechtenstein steered clear of his ethnicity and pleases
artistic pop polloi, not demonstrating in his “WHAAM!”
or other comic strip that he’s a son of Abraham.
As such the artist is more typical of Jews today
than is Chagall, whose paint records a world that is passé.
Although you cannot change the skin of any Ethiop,
without a leopard Liechtenstein made spots artistic pop.

Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil (Jer. 13:23)

gwhepner@yahoo.com

neryflan says:

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Roy Lichtenstein

A retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago